I heard today about a musician called Pauline Oliveros. Check out this Guardian article for more background.
I’ve not heard her music yet, and I can’t believe I haven’t heard of her until now.
Apparently she’s about 80. She’s been making music all her life and was one of the first people to mess around with synths. In the 1950s! She founded something called the Deep Listening Institute.
Anyway, she’s also a composer. She seems to be interested in opening the mind to the experience of reality. To make music that encourages people to actually hear it, rather than a familiar pattern that the mind logs and doesn’t really hear at all.
My friend was telling me that she made this piece of music that was essentially a single tone. The tone should be sustained until the player no longer feels the desire to change it. At this point the player should change it.
Zen and language
The Zen approach partly involves playing with language, metaphor and social convention in an attempt to wake up the student to what lies below such conceptualisations. Until the student experiences the real thing. The thing itself, before any interpretation has been laid over it.
Interpretation is a good thing. If you had to see everything anew every time, you’d never get anything done, and you’d never learn anything. One door is pretty much the same as another door. You turn the handle, push or pull, and it opens. This allows you to walk through it. Job done.
But living in a world where we see everything through the eyes of learning and past experience also limits our ability to awaken. We get caught in habits that no longer serve us. We narrow, ossify and get out of touch. Our concepts become a prison. Finding new ways of doing things gets harder and harder. We can’t see what’s in front of our eyes because we think we’ve seen it all before.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.
Three kinds of learning
In the early tradition, the texts talk of three levels of learning:
1. Learning as a result of hearing (or, in the post-oral tradition, reading)
2. Learning as a result of reflection
3. Learning as a result of meditation – i.e. direct experience (this is the highest level)
Insight: turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness
Insight (vipassana) in Buddhism is not a learned thing. It’s been called a ‘turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness’. An inner revolution. A completely different experience of everything. Directly seeing things as they really are. Before the concepts and ideas. Even the Buddhist concepts and ideas.
Buddhist practice is about creating opportunities for insight to arise. But insight arises when it’s good and ready. It is experienced, not learned.
Through Buddhist practice, we try to create conditions (in our minds, our hearts and our lives) that are conducive to the arising of insight. But we can’t force it. It’s like trying to encourage a deer to eat from our hand. Mindfulness, patience, open-heartedness, a steady hand. But in the end, the deer will come when it’s good and ready.